Politics has been a constant presence in cinema for a long time, but if I told you that your favourite film had a strong political undertone, would you view it in the same light as before? Probably not, and it is for this reason, that politics in mainstream cinema is largely a subtle, covered force that most don’t acknowledge unless explicitly told it is there. You would be surprised how often and where political undertones appear.
Naturally, some films are blatantly political or have a plot point that is inherently political. The Hate U Give, my favourite film of last year, and an adaptation of my favourite book of all time, tells the story of an unarmed black teenager who is shot by a white police officer. The plot progresses with Starr, the only witness, as our protagonist, who takes part in the campaign for justice through protest, public appearances and, ultimately, rioting. As you can probably imagine from the description given, the nature of this film is naturally political through and through, offering harrowing commentary on American society and the justice system. The line in this film that has stuck with me the most is ‘it’s the same story, just a different name’, a bold statement that effectively and realistically depicts the way American society operates around such an issue, but does so within the safe space that is provided by it being a fictional circumstance.
Another of my favourite films, The Hunger Games, is a great example of a political subplot. Of course, it is primarily about The Hunger Games as an event, following Katniss through her experience as a tribute. The secondary plot-point, however, and the primary plot of the later films and books, is the dictatorial regime that exists. President Snow is a dictator and the reason the games were enforced in the first place was to act as a guarantor of compliance and obedience, to keep the twelve Districts in line. This theme is explored further in the later films, as resistance and revolution start to brew. Methods of coercion such as public flogging, execution and bombing are all present in the films, with the eventual revolution being followed in Mockingjay Part 1 and 2. The franchise, therefore, acts as a portrayal of power relations and political violence, albeit this is not the most prevalent plot within the earlier films in the series.
On the other hand, films with no apparent political plot or message can still carry a political undertone, whether that be intentional or not. This, however, comes down to interpretation, especially when the political nature is not obvious or intentional. For instance, superhero films have received attention for their supposed upholding of conservative values, which is carried out through an individual or group upholding the status quo in the face of a threat to the establishment and ‘normality’ as a whole. So, all of your favourite Marvel and DC characters are simply instrumental to the maintenance of conservative ideals, or so some would say.
Another example of an interpretive political undertone can be found in The Lord of the Rings, a pop culture classic, which can be said to be a commentary on industrialisation and technological advancement. Tolkien’s upbringing and background reflect this: as a resident of a rural area, industrialisation and urban sprawl influenced his area with factories, which, given his location was previously idyllic and serene, were seen as an encroaching evil. We have a formerly peaceful land, which is interrupted by a negative, dark influence that corrupts the area.
These are both perfect examples of a political message that is so heavily wrapped up in plot and world-building that the undertone is not noticed unless specifically looked for. So, the political nature of a film does not have to be prominent and noticeable, it can instead be discrete, but that does not make the mainstream cinema industry less political. There is probably a political message to your favourite film, but look for it at your own risk, for your view of the film will be changed, I guarantee it.